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Wednesday, March 2, 2011


The first day I entered the Internet (you know, when it was so alien we capitalized it, as if you were journeying to Mordor) I joined a group (I mean, a LISTSERV) for writers. The group was discussing the different ways they'd write, and someone said she "must have absolute silence in order to write."

I laughed until I had to wipe away the tears. Really? Absolute silence? (Bear in mind, I learned to write by hauling a 200-decibel electric typewriter to my future stepfather's house and typing while three boys under age ten watched -- and re-enacted -- late-night wrestling. Either that or after school on the New York City subways: to this day, when I'm writing longhand, I look up every three minutes, checking my stop. The first time I found myself writing in a library, I had to leave.)

But during that first online conversation, I realized that I too had my writerly quirks. I liked to write my novels longhand in spiral-bound notebooks, using only one side of the page (so I could make edits on the blanks) and with all the same color covers, and using the same pen until it ran out of ink. I liked looking at a pen and thinking, "My entire book is in this pen. I just need to stretch it out."

And I dared laugh at someone who required silence?

Writing feels mystical to those of us who create, so it makes sense we'd come up with our own quirks, the things we "need" to do in order to make the magic happen. To some extent, those are fun and harmless weapons against writers block. Do you need to write in purple ink? Fine, stock up on purple pens and produce pages of purple prose. (All alliterative, as an aside.) Nothing wrong with that.

But here's a caution: writing is scary in that we can't always control it. When we manufacture these quirks, they're an attempt to control the out-of-control. When we're not writing to our own standards, it's easy to say "That's because it's not perfectly silent" but harder to look at ourselves and say, "Something is wrong today. I need to push through this anyhow."

In other words, we can develop both helpful and unhelpful quirks. Unhelpful quirks place limits on when, where, how, and with what we can write. Helpful ones channel the writing in order to keep creativity on a higher burn.

For example, one writer told me she never stopped writing at the end of a scene. Even if only three words, she would start the next scene because she didn't want to begin her writing session with nothing. Other writers say they have to write something every day, even if only one sentence, because then they don't feel they haven't made progress.

Once the quirks become truly helpful, you'll notice, they're no longer quirks. At that point, they're disciplines.

There are as many ways to write as there are writers. What quirks have you found to reinforce your urge to write rather, than frustrate it?

Jane Lebak is the author of The Guardian (Thomas Nelson, 1994), Seven Archangels: Annihilation (Double-Edged Publishing, 2008) and The Boys Upstairs (MuseItUp, 2010). At Seven Angels, Four Kids, One Family, she blogs about what happens when a distracted daydreamer and a gamer geek attempt to raise four children. She is represented by Roseanne Wells of the Marianne Strong Literary Agency.


Jess of All Trades said...

Great article with some keen observations and good advice..thanks! Still laughing over the Morder bit.. ;)

Anonymous said...

Nice post! I suppose quirks are a means to relieve or stave off anxiety...certainly something to think about.

Chazley Dotson said...

That's terrific! I love the line about the book being in the pen and just needing to stretch it out. I like writing by hand because I feel like I'm actually creating something physical, a real written page. But my worst quirk was needing at least a semi-quiet, non-distracting place to write. That really limited my writing time. Thankfully, I've worked through that one and can write almost anywhere. So long as there is a hot drink. And my special pens. And...

Jane Lebak said...

That's awesome, Chazley. I love fountain pens especially for the stretchable ink factor.

Having four children cured me of ever needing quiet. For anything. Ever.

One of my guy friends once gave me a fountain pen. I had to give it back -- it felt too intimate, I guess the way a non-writing woman would feel about a gift of jewelry. LOL!

Ghenet Myrthil said...

Great post! Lately I've been writing my WIP my hand using an electronic pencil. I gotten so much more writing done this way. I think the pencil for me is key because I can erase. I try not to self-edit when writing but if a sentence is clearly wrong as I'm writing, I like being able to erase it before rewriting it. Weird, I know!

Lucinda Bilya said...

This is an awesome blog…one I can’t avoid adding my two cents. (I read them, just don’t always jump in and say so.)

Btw: thanks for ALL the great topics here.

Quirks? I love writing anytime, anywhere, normally. When life is noisy, chaotic, and disruptive, I listen to instrumental music in my headphones. When silence causes the clock on the wall to sound like timpani, I embrace the moment. Writing with pen or pencil is awesome, but college classes (typing 70 wpm) frustrated my penmanship – no patience to write legibly anymore. Plus, the story usually goes faster than I can write.

I have written while driving, but promised a dear friend not to do that anymore. So, I pull over and jot my thoughts down on a notebook I keep in my car. Waiting tables, I wrote on register tape, napkins, and other scraps of paper. I have even written on…ahem…toilet paper. (I refuse to explain that one.)

The only damper to writing for me is when there is something needing done that weighs heavily on my mind such as house chores, phone calls that have to be made…anything that pokes at the back of my mind like a hungry cat begging to be fed.

Getting through discouragement or the "Am I crazies" as Nathan Bransford blogged once, usually takes only write a sentence or two to get back into the "zone."


amberargyle said...

I can create in the noise. I have to--3 kids under 8 and all. But they can't keep interupting me. I get pulled in and every time they jerk me out, it takes me forever to get back in again.

Jane Lebak said...

You mean like How Mom Writes A Novel? :-)